The excessive nature of the 1980s made it a perfect realm for an equally excessive horror cinema. While simplifying the decade to its trivial sound bites of bright, electronic yuppyism may be too all encompassing as a genuine historical analysis, this summation of criteria is perfect when discussing the decade’s cinema. Cinema is so often the most uncomfortable reflective tool on society and yet this reflection of the burdening hyper-reality is often found best in the most populist of entertainment. Dario Argento had already been pushing towards these garish excesses in his earlier films and Giallos but his 1982 film, Tenebrae, seems to be his definitive stamp on the era and was as the apt beginning of the end for the director’s gradual decline in quality.
Tenebrae is not unlike Argento’s other Giallo films. It contains strong violence and bloody murder committed by the hands of a leather gloved assailant. Its score is almost deliberately unsubtle, jumping between diegetic and nondiegetic without a care in the world. Tenebrae‘s vision is full of glass walls and open-plan buildings; the key to the director’s addiction to accidental voyeurism and plain-sight murder. In other words, Tenebrae is almost typical Argento but this somewhat undersells its flourish of individual grace notes and a genuine twist on Argento’s usual solutions.
At the heart of the film, is a writer whose novel appears to be at the source of every murder committed. The element of stalking and obsessions derived from enjoying populist art is at the forefront of the film but this is a nice twist on Argento’s various scenarios. From the art gallery murder in Bird with the Crystal Plumage to the reveal in Deep Red (1975) of the murderer’s penchant for paintings, creativity is an undercurrent that drives murder in Argento’s films. Tenebrae builds an especially effective parallel between its own narrative and the narrative of the writer’s novel. The fact that this build is a subtle rouse only adds to its the film’s overall gut-punch when the twist is eventually revealed.
Of course, a film like Tenebrae is not there to have its inner logic questioned. Similarly to the work of Lucio Fulci, the narrative strands that often don’t make sense, make for the best visual efforts. A technically brilliant track around the upper and lower floors of a flat hints at a Gondry-esque fluidity and seems even humorously excessive when its main motive is shown to be the reveal of the murderer simply cutting away at some blinds. It’s hard to distinguish whether the humour is originally there or added to through the obvious era of the film but it’s presence is welcome either way, especially considering some Argento’s later, more brutal and humourless works.
Behind Tenebrae‘s mixture of schlock aesthetics and strangely off-kilter performances (further added by the ubiquitous, awful dub track) is a keen eye for beautifully surreal imagery. Argento, again similar to Fulci, has a Bunuel-like obsession with eyes and the Freudian possibilities of cinema. An array of dream sequences fuel the speculation of who the murderer is but also fuels their motives and drops heavy hints as to why these largely misogynistic murders are taking place. Indeed, Argento addresses his own critics on misogyny, almost satiring them in the form of an angry feminist journalist, aggressively interrogating the author about his penchant for killing women in his novels.
It can’t help but feel a loose argument, especially when the film sets the usual schlock precedent of having men clothed in suits and the women barely clothed at all (unless they’re a secretary). It would be nice to think of Tenebrae as a time-capsule of dated ideals though, judging by the recent batch of music videos, we’re far from being past the objectifying norm. Luckily for Argento, his sly humour and artistic eye just about make up for his portrayals though still falls short.
Tenebrae is a film best approached with the knowledge that inner logic cannot possibly hold up. Like so many Italian horrors of the era, they are more than simply gory narratives but genuine explorations of the psychological possibilities of cinema. It may be difficult to address underneath the obvious pulpy pleasures of gory murder and Hitchockian suspense but the artistry is there by the bucket load.
The main selling point of the release is the massively improved digital transfer of the film as well as the obviously lovely SteelBook. While SteelBooks often seem more like a gimmick than a true improvement, this seems to tie in well to the film itself with its excessive, detailed nature being something of a guilty pleasure. This nature is also reflected in the disc’s extras of which there are plenty and listed below:
-Limited Edition SteelBook packaging featuring original artwork
– Newly remastered High Definition digital transfer of the film
– Presented in High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD
– Optional original English & Italian Mono Audio tracks (uncompressed PCM Mono 2.0 Audio on the Blu-ray)
– Optional English subtitles for Italian audio and English SDH subtitles for English audio for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Audio Commentary with authors and critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones
– Audio Commentary with Argento expert Thomas Rostock
– Introduction by star Daria Nicolodi
– The Unsane World of Tenebrae: An interview with director Dario Argento
– Screaming Queen! Daria Nicolodi remembers Tenebrae
– A Composition for Carnage: Composer Claudio Simonetti on Tenebrae
– Goblin: ‘Tenebrae’ and ‘Phenomena’ Live from the Glasgow Arches
– Original Trailer
– Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing by Alan Jones, author of Profondo Argento